Today's Military History Lesson: Fireforce

fireforce.jpgThe Rhodesian Security Forces were arguably the most effective counterinsurgency units in modern history. Rhodesia, a former British colony (now Zimbabwe), unilaterally declared independence from the Crown after a disagreements on a power transition from European colonists to the Africa majority. A fifteen year long Bush War followed, between the Rhodesians and two African nationalist movements: ZIPRA, led by Josh Nkomo and backed by the Soviets, and ZANLA, led by Robert Mugabe and backed by the Chinese. The Rhodesians, the target of the first UN economic sanctions, were backed by no one except apartheid South Africa.The security forces, therefor, had to cover the area of the size of Texas with highly limited resources and manpower (there were approximately 275,000 white Europeans and 7 million Africans living in Rhodesia during the war). Using South African supplied Alouette helicopters and DC-3 Dakotas (some airframes veterans of Operation Market Garden and D-Day), the Rhodesians developed a highly effective technique of aerial envelopment called the "fireforce" (see photo above).A fireforce consisted of several "sticks" of troopies, usual one stick of 4 men per helicopter or 5 sticks of 20 men per Dakota. The choppers were designated either K-cars (a command car armed with the fireforce's commanding officer and a heavy machine gun) and G-Cars, which carried the combat sticks. Fireforce teams were largely drawn from the highly elite Rhodesian Light Infantry -an all European commando outfit- or the Rhodesian African Rifles, also a highly effective COIN outfit, this one all African with European officers. The typical Fireforce was one Dakota, 3 G-cars, one K-car, and modified Cessna called a Lynx (used for close air support). Hawker Hunter jets were also used.The Rhodesians guided Fireforces onto terrorist (or Terr) targets using mostly human intelligence, stemming from the highly effecitve Selous Scouts (a pseudo infilitration unit which employed "tame" terrorists), observation posts, and spies run by their Central Intelligence Organization or Special Branch of the British South African Police. Once a group of Terrs was located, a Fireforce was dispatched through local Joint Operational Commands (JOCs).The first wave of a fireforce consisted of eight sticks (also called "stops," in that they "stopped" terrs from escaping into the bush), with the K-Car always the first responder. The K-Car's gunner flushed Terrs from their positions -usually a local village in one of the Tribal Trust Lands- while the Fireforce commander evaluated logical escape routes. Once established, G-Cars or Daks dropped troops onto their stop positions, with their troopies quickly forming a sweep line (four men spaced approximately 20 meters from each other). The stops locked their targets into place, while the Lynx dropped frantan (napalm) on the fleeing terrs.The Fireforce tactic resulted in remarkably lopsided kill ratios in favor of the Rhodesians, while enabling them to patrol vast swaths of territory with a relatively small number of soldiers. Unfortunately for the Rhodesians, their combat prowess didn't translate into political effectiveness, as they won every major engagement from 1965-1980, but lost the war. Still, their skillful use of airpower as an envelopment technique was as groundbreaking as it was deadly.--John Noonan

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